Chilean documentary films: Records of resistance

As Chile looks forward to a hopeful future under the recently elected socialist President Gabriel Boric, a review of the large body of films that has come into existence in the past three decades examining the period of the dictatorship and its aftermath in the country.

Published : Mar 04, 2022 06:00 IST

The newly elected President Gabriel Boric before the presentation of his Cabinet in Santiago on January 21.

The newly elected President Gabriel Boric before the presentation of his Cabinet in Santiago on January 21.

“O nly if you are able to recognise yourself in the past is it possible to come to terms with the present. Personally, I have always believed that a country which does not have a past, can have neither a present nor a future,” wrote Miguel Littin, the distinguished Chilean film-maker. The recent election of the young socialist leader Gabriel Boric as President of Chile has shown that the sins of the dictatorship years (1973-1990) have not been entirely forgotten by the Chilean people, especially the young and the deprived. Clearly, the present verdict is meant to make the present safe and to visualise the future with necessary confidence. The element of poetic justice in Boric’s election is hard to miss. Salvador Allende Gossens, the world’s first freely elected Marxist head of state who was brought down in a coup sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency and executed by the Chilean army headed by Augusto Pinochet Duarte, must be shaking his head in his grave in the manner he did when on earlier occasions Michelle Bachelet was elected President. Bachelet’s father was among the thousands of Allendista s (meaning followers or supporters of the slain president) who were eliminated for opposing the coup.

In the past 30 years, a body of films has come into existence examining the period of the dictatorship and its aftermath. Film—both documentary and drama—played an important role in letting the world know about Pinochet’s atrocities against the country’s dissenters who would mock at the general’s exhortations to his supporters to uphold “God, nation and family”. In this connection, two films that immediately come to mind are the documentarist Patricio Guzman’s La Battala de Chile (The Battle of Chile) and Miguel Littin’s El Chacal de Nahueltoro (The Jackal of Nahueltoro), which paved the way for a host of ‘coup’ films. El Chacal is an incisive criticism of social conditions in Latin America in general and Chile in particular. Littin employed a documentary style and grainy images married to incidental sounds to expose the fascist system that produces people like the so-called “Jackal”, an unlettered, poor, and emotionally unstable young man who kills his wife and several children in a fit of drunken fury.

The incident actually happened in the backward interior of the country where people worsen their poverty by drowning themselves in alcohol. The trajectory of the man’s life and death serves as an unsettling study in irony and the workings of power structures, including the state, the judiciary, the church and the media. The inadvertent murderer, having been swiftly tracked down, was given his first hair-cut, his first decent meals, his first lessons in the Spanish alphabet under the care of a chaplain—and then, when he seemed somewhat fit to lead a normal life in society, sentenced to death and shot. The name, “Jackal” was given to the man by the media and picked up in no time by a society so structured by the elites and the middle-classes as to lust for the blood of many an unfortunate never given an opportunity to grow up ‘healthy, wealthy and wise’.

In this context, perhaps it will do no harm to recall an incident nearer home which showed how uncannily close human beings are at times to each other despite being separated by great distances. In the summer of 2004, a young man named Dhananjay Chatterjee was hanged at Alipore Central Jail in Calcutta following his conviction for the rape and murder of a teenaged schoolgirl. Judging by the impoverished quality of life to which Dhananjay had been condemned by history, or the manner in which it was ended, he may be said to have been a kinsman of the “Jackal”.

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Few Chilean film-makers have so consistently and painstakingly probed the individual psyche in a state of laceration caused by the application of tyrannical methods to ensure ‘peace and normalcy’ as Gonzalo Justiniano. Like Littin or Guzman, Justiniano spent many years in exile outside his country when Pinochet’s jackboots held sway. In Amnesia , Justiniano does not name the country where the plot is situated, but it is obvious that he is pointing to the nightmare that was Chile once the Popular Unity government headed by Allende had been toppled. Using a distinctive personal style characterised by black humour, Justiniano tackles critical issues like the urge for revenge, or the need to forget and get along.

Justiniano is on record: “ Amnesia is a film to counter general amnesia…. In today’s Chile there are people who don’t want to remember anything, starting with those who were involved in dreadful crimes against human rights, up to and including people who demonstrated an enormous lack of political responsibility.” It goes without saying that such an attitude of deliberate forgetfulness on the part of not just the upper classes is still to be detected in practically every Latin American country that has known prolonged military intervention. One has only to turn to Brazil, for example, to see how its President, Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters can get away with their praises for military rule in their country during the long period from 1964 to 1985.

Set in the last years of the Pinochet regime, Ricardo Larrain Pineda’s La Frontera (The Frontier) narrates the experiences of a mathematics teacher arrested for signing a petition for the release of a jailed activist-colleague and sentenced to banishment. Made in 1992 soon after the return of democracy on somewhat faltering feet since Pinochet had agreed to give up power only on the condition that as a life-long Senator he could not be subjected to legal proceedings, La Frontera won a Silver Bear in Berlin for artistic excellence combined with political relevance. More avowedly political than some other equally distinguished films constituting what is often referred to as “Coup Cinema”– Chile chapter, La Frontera however also exhibited dream-like qualities whilst exploring the theme of exile and estrangement, as indeed of repair and reconstruction. It speaks volumes about the will and determination of a cross-section of the sufferers of the coup, that when the exiled protagonist is given a chance to return to his home in Santiago, he tells a visiting television crew that he wants to stay where he is amongst people of indigenous stock.

Littin, who has been to India more than once to show his films and speak on what led to the coup and what happened after it came to be lifted, made a film with autobiographical undertones in 1993 called Los naufragos (Shipwrecked). Aaron, the film’s protagonist, returns to his country after 20 years of exile. He is, to quote the director, searching for “a lost nation, a lost understanding, and his lost ties with those who stayed behind”. He enters the house where he spent his childhood, negotiating uncertainly but full of yearning, dark corridors and winding staircases. His search for his father and brother is also a search for his inner self; a dark, anxious conversation with himself where memories mingle with hope and expectations, the nature of which is not quite clear.

The collective amnesia that Justiniano speaks of is also dealt with by Littin, whose El Chacal , made in the first flush of popular enthusiasm for the ideals of the redoubtable Allende or his closest aides, including the poet Pablo Neruda, was among a bunch of pioneering films that drew the battlelines between progressive forces and conservative elements. In every sense of the expression, the growing conflict, ending in the overthrow of the democratically elected government, was between the local moneyed mafia enjoying the support of the West and the labouring classes living in the barrios in tandem with the student community and their mentors.

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Silvio Caiozzi’s La luna en el espejo (The Moon in the Mirror), which was embraced with love and a little sadness by the Venice film festival audience in 1990, was a stunning achievement where art and politics fused seamlessly to produce an excruciating love story with a thematic backdrop of physical and psychological authoritarianism. An indirect indictment of military rule, on the surface, the film is about three people in search of love in a magical harbour of twinkling lights, long shadows and mysterious escalators negotiating with nightly silences. A retired naval officer, Don Arnaldo, lives cooped up in an ancient, rickety house, with his son El Gordo, or Fatty, as his only companion. Reflecting shades of Pinochet and his ubiquitous spies, Don Arnaldo observes everything happening in the house from his sick bed, thanks to a series of mirrors of varied descriptions hanging on the walls. Fatty is obedient and loving, but he is also afraid and desperately wants to be free to love Lucrecia, his neighbour, an attractive widow slightly older than he. The sailor is restless, hallucinating about losing his son to the woman—and therein lies the drama of a family in ferment, symbolic of a nation on the boil.

This writer remembers talking to Caiozzi in Madras (now Chennai) in 1991 after a screening of La luna , adapted from a story by Jose Donoso, Chile’s representative in the Latin American literary boom that took the world by storm in the second half of the last century. Caiozzi spoke of how highly Donoso was thought of in his own country; of his capacity to invoke images pulsating with passion and smelling of a certain quality of embittered rawness; and his powers of penetration into his times and the assortment of creatures they produced. Despite the feeling that the story takes place anytime during the period of the dictatorship, it is a much older past that is revived in frame after frame—a past that is orthodox, mediocre, often mean, failing to rise above sloth and self-seeking. But, having said that, one cannot escape noticing that the film’s dramatic tension grows out of the collision between a patriarch’s dictatorial tendencies to keep out the winds of change blowing outside his window and his son’s need to break out of the damp-smelling mould to which he has been condemned.

Caiozzi’s place in his country’s cinema of resistance is furthered by his documentary video called Fernando is Back Home , which attests to both his abiding loyalty to the memory of the desaparacidos (the disappeared) and his passion for using different cinematic genres to give expression to his role as artist, citizen and human being. Since the return of democracy, unidentified human remains buried without record during the dictatorship have been unearthed at sites across the country. Fernando de Olivares Mori, 27 at the time of his death, vanished one day for his expressed opposition to the junta and was hastily buried. Once the body of the former United Nations employee was disinterred, the procedure for clearly establishing the identity of his remains took another four years. Fernando is Back Home opens with the victim’s family as they face his remains and listen to a detailed explanation from doctors of the medical verifications that were performed. From their testimony, one learns of the spine-chilling facts of Fernando’s end. The forensic surgeon’s report to the dead man’s widow—broken bones, bullet holes in the skull—tells its own tale of savagery; a tale woven by bemedaled generals and their accomplices to make Chile “safe from Communism”.

Patricio Guzman

But as far as documentaries go, no one has chipped away so patiently, so skillfully, so effectively, and for so long, at the myth of Pinochet as Chile’s “saviour against destabilising forces” as Patricio Guzman. Trained in cinema in Franco’s Spain, Guzman made five feature-length documentaries during Allende’s short time in office, but it is principally for his stupendous La Battala de Chile that he will be remembered for as long as film art is valued as a vehicle capable of defrocking impostors and clothing their victims in robes of honour. This epic three-part documentary recounts with chilling conviction the hope and struggle for a better future for the oppressed and the marginalised that rent the Chilean air during the Allende years—and their tragic demise. It has exercised enormous influence all over the world on film-makers and film viewers; and in some rare cases, even on political figures with their head and heart in the right places.

Significantly, in our own country, perhaps no one has expressed his admiration more memorably for The Battle of Chile than Anand Patwardhan, pioneer of the New Indian Documentary. Asked to indicate his favourite documentary some years ago by a reputed European film journal, Patwardhan chose The Battle of Chile , which is just as well because the Bombay director’s own vision of social justice and the process of participation by the popular classes in nation-building along new, daring lines, coincide with many of the signals sent out by this extraordinary celluloid journey into the soul of a potentially rich but actually impoverished nation struggling for change through peaceful democratic methods. In this connection, it may be rightly said that if the wealth generated by Chile’s enormous copper reserves, for one thing, were to be judiciously used, the lower classes would have had lesser reason to complain about their economic plight. The statesman that he was, Allende realised this early on and had the copper industry nationalised, thereby packing off the copper multinationals from the United States which had until then been looting Chile with the help of local agents. Asking multinationals like Cerro, Kennecott or Anaconda to leave the country was, in a real sense, akin to Allende signing his own death warrant. The political outcome of the coup is to be traced to that economic legislation, which was passed despite stiff opposition from the far right.

Regarding the attraction he feels for The Battle of Chile , Patwardhan is on record thus: “As a student in America in the radical 1970s, I saw many documentaries that began to push me towards film-making as a viable form of social action, but the film that remains etched in my mind is Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. ” Recalling those days when he himself was having a trying time choosing between Gandhi and Marx, the two father-figures who have long since wrestled to possess the imagination and the conscience of many an educated Indian, Patwardhan wrote: “Chile’s Salvador Allende was already an icon. I was grappling with the desire to convince my Marxist friends to accept the ethics and strategy of non-violence, while trying to convince my Gandhian friends that non-violence without class struggle could not bring justice. Here was a Marxist who came to power not through a bloody revolution but through elections. When a CIA-sponsored military coup killed Allende on 11 September 1973, and thousands of workers and citizens were massacred, it was a devastating blow to the cause of democracy and socialism. Guzman’s epic documentary captures the glory and the tragedy of the Allende years.”

Also read: Fire in the Plains, Fire in the Mountains

Apart from the importance of the film’s content, what clearly fascinates India’s foremost documentarist who has never been known to shy away from his responsibilities as a public intellectual at a time of crisis for his people, are its formal qualities and its engagement with an aesthetics that can be poetic even as stormy political events are recorded. Patwardhan: “In the 1970s, Julio Garcia Espinosa hailed the arrival of ‘Imperfect Cinema’, its hand-held, black-and-white, grainy, fast-moving footage bearing the marks of the struggle it depicted. Guzman’s aesthetic rises beyond ‘imperfection’ and self-conscious radicalism, its poetry stemming from an unerring faith in the importance of the ordinary as it intertwines with the extraordinary.”

True, democracy returned to Chile in 1990 after 17 long years of death and destruction that need not have been if only the military or the media had not been fatally corrupted by fear, greed or spinelessness. True, more recently, an idealistic and energetic leader of the poorest of the poor has been elected to the highest office in the land in the hope that he will follow in the path of Allende’s experiments with truth for popular good. But let no one forget that it will be a long time before memories of that dark night, authored combinedly by the native oligarchy and the White House, are forgotten. Memories of friends and relatives disappeared; of neighbours who chose to look the other way lest they got involved with the authorities; of strange lands of exile that threw up unexpected comrades; and of a divided society so badly riven that time may try but never wholly heal.

If Pinochet’s surviving salesmen of death are finally rounded up as a result of the court order pronounced in late May 2008, and adequately punished, their victims, wherever they are—in unmarked graves, in proper cemeteries, or gone with the wind—will have reason to rest in peace at long last. But even after that, Patricio Guzman, for one, may be counted upon to continue to be haunted by obstinate memories of sunless days and nights without end. “For me, it is as if the coup d’etat took place yesterday”: Guzman.

Allende and Neruda, “two of the dead who will never die”, are, of course, larger-than-life figures who have rightly passed into the history of the modern world complete with numerous betrayals and an occasional triumph of the human spirit. Again, Littin, Guzman, Justiniano, Caiozzi or Pineda have rightly entered the pages of Chilean history and even a pan-continental consciousness by virtue of their films, writings and other interventions on behalf of the many lost and a few found who had been thought to be lost. But a simple story to be found in the slim but scorching Clandestine in Chile , jointly written by Miguel Littin and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, gives eternal life to an entire history of repression and resistance. Littin, being less of a writer and more of a film-maker, spoke about his experiences which were written down by Marquez in a manner that only he could. Marquez writes simply but with a depth of feeling that few chroniclers can evoke, of a woman who was taken aside by Littin so that no one would overhear their conversation and asked whether she had been an Allendista . She reacted sharply: “Not had been, am. ” And removing a figure of Virgin Mary in the house, she revealed a photograph of Allende behind it.

Pablo Neruda’s home

Littin, incognito, also visited Neruda’s seaside home at Isla Negra, sealed and closed to visitors by the military. The film-maker found that despite the army’s determined efforts, the poet’s home had become a place of pilgrimage to generations of men and women in love who loved their country no less. On barred shutters and on wooden planks used to seal the house, there were thousands of messages and signatures of love and gratitude, often scrambled over each other for want of space: Juan and Rosa love each other through Pablo … Thank you, Pablo, for teaching us love … We want to love as much as you loved … Generals, love never dies. Allende and Neruda live. One minute of darkness will not make us blind . For the next few years, Gabriel Boric, the new El Presidente , has an opportunity to enter the spirit and substance of some of Chile’s foremost statesmen in politics and the arts; to nurse old wounds and achieve new beginnings.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee, based in Kolkata, is a veteran film critic.

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